Bill Drayton sees a world where 'everyone is a changemaker'

Bill Drayton founded Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, which now has put about 3,000 social entrepreneurs into the field all over the world, three decades ago. A college professor once described him as having "the determination of Job and the brains of a Nobel laureate." Says Drayton: "The life purpose of the true social entrepreneur is to change the world."

By , Staff Writer

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    Bill Drayton, the godfather of social entrepreneurs, argues we must move quickly into an 'everyone is a changemaker' world, where ever-changing teams of entrepreneurs address the challenges facing humanity.
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If you want to find out what's happening in the world of social entrepreneurs, you can't do better than ask Bill Drayton: especially since he's the person who first coined the term "social entrepreneur" and is an acknowledged pioneer in the field.

Mr. Drayton is well-known as the founder and CEO of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, which now has about 3,000 social entrepreneurs in the field all over the world. This year marks 30 years since the first Ashoka fellows began their work. He has won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship. In 2006, Harvard University named him one of its 100 “Most Influential Alumni.” In 2010, he received an Honorary Doctorate from New York University and the Essl Social Prize, for his work creating and building the field of social entrepreneurship.

According to David Bornstein's book, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, one of Drayton's college professors once described him as having "the determination of Job and the brains of a Nobel laureate." "The life purpose of the true social entrepreneur is to change the world," Drayton has said. "[H]e or she simply cannot come to rest in life until his or her vision has become the new pattern societywide."

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In an interview last week in Boston Drayton frequently evoked his mantra that "Everyone is a changemaker."

"Whether it's a large traditional social service organization, and you can quickly think of some, or a large bureaucratic corporation, they're both dead," he says. "The future is for the entrepreneurs in any sector."

Some portions of that wide-ranging interview are below, condensed and somewhat rearranged – since Drayton tends to move quickly from subject to subject, idea to related idea, regardless of the original question asked.

You coined the term "social entrepreneur." Who is a social entrepreneur and who isn't?

Bill Drayton: Understanding social entrepreneurship is a challenge. It's getting less so because people are understanding it more.

Entrepreneurs are about changing the system, the larger patterns. That's where we make the distinction between entrepreneur and changemaker.

Most people use the word entrepreneur, and they don't have a clue what an entrepreneur is.

It's not defined by subject matter. A) They're an entrepreneur so it's about fundamental change. And B) they're committed to the good of all.

It's not "corporate social responsibility" – a little footnote off at the edge – but right at the core. This person is totally committed to the good of everybody, the whole society.

I think this is where society in general is headed in the future and these people are already there.

And social entrepreneurs use the terminology and the techniques of the business world?

This is another thing that is very confusing. Traditionally, when you start thinking about "entrepreneur" you start thinking about business. But [nursing pioneer] Florence Nightingale was a brilliant entrepreneur. [Education reformer] Maria Montessori was. Saint Francis of Assisi was. None of these people were in business.

Around 1700 business become entrepreneurial and just took off and became highly productive and grew in scale and globalized.

In 1980 something [else] very profound happened. All around the world except for a few places like Burma [Myanmar] where government got in the way the citizen sector shifted and became entrepreneurial and competitive. And over three decades, which in a historical time frame is short, it's been catching up fast with business in productivity, scale, and globalization.

So now both [business and social service organizations] are entrepreneurial and competitive and there isn't that much difference in scale and productivity.

Don't social entrepreneurs often provide a service or goods to their customers? Isn't that like a business?

Everything for thousands of years has been hierarchies of repetitive functions. And that's going away. The hierarchy, which only really works for repetitive functions, can't function in a world that's defined by change.

To contribute to that world you have to be a fluid team of teams. [You ask] "This change is going on over here. Now, how can we contribute to that change process?" How you contribute today is going to be different from how you contribute in two days. And so the team of teams is constantly changing. There's no way where a hierarchy of repetitive functions where only a few people are allowed to think can deal in that world.

So whether it's a large traditional social service organization, and you can quickly think of some, or a large bureaucratic corporation, they're both dead. They will not be able to deal with this environment. And the future is for the entrepreneurs in any sector.

Once you have a team of teams, everyone has to be a player. And you better be able to see and contribute to change to be a player.

There's a very powerful logical to this. It's all driven by the underlying historical fact that the rate of change is still escalating exponentially. And so are the number of changemakers. And so are the combinations of changemakers.

The old concept of an organization with stable boundaries is rooted in a world where things didn't change perceptibly.

Are you optimistic that we can make this change to a entrepreneurial society?

I'm actually more worried for the US than for some other countries.

I believe this is so much in everyone's interest that once people see it, that we're going into an "everyone is a changemaker" world, you develop a set of skills to deal with that type of environment. You don't have to change every day. You keep applying those skills, you strengthen them. But you're contributing to change rather than doing the same old thing over and over.

Some people are going to respond [to change]. They will do well. Their organizations will do well.

Silicon Valley, what is it? Bangalore [India], what is it? It's a place where all the changemakers go. And they go there because the other changemakers are there and [changemaking] institutions are there. Not just one institution but a whole ecosystem of institutions are competing to attract changemakers and allow them to work together in this sort of fluid, rapidly changing way.

The half-life of any product or service just gets shorter and shorter. The thing that's stable is: How many changemakers do you have? At what level of skill? How well do you work together? That's the key factor for success going forward, and it's true for an individual, a company, a citizen group, a religion, a country.

You don't have to imagine this. There are islands of this new world already in place. In the digital world, for example, that is the culture.

I would think in the nonprofit world there's been a suspicion of capitalism, of using the same techniques that businesses use? Is the genius of social entrepreneurship showing people who have good intentions that there is a more effective way to carry out those intentions?

Yes. When we got started there literally wasn't a word for social entrepreneurship. We had to invent it.

I can't tell you how useful [the term] is. My mother, who has always loved me, she struggled for years. "My son Bill is sort of a lawyer..." and then she'd crumble into incoherence. And now all she has to do is say "He's a social entrepreneur. And that's good." So a simple thing like that makes a big difference.

Once people saw [the idea] "Oh, social entrepreneurs. I could be one," that's very powerful.

Everyone gets to be a player. Not just a few people.

We're going through an awkward transition, a big transition. But once everyone has the power to be a changemaker, they know it.

Now we have to do the next thing. We have to get over the awareness "tipping zone," which will come quickly. And I think we're just entering that zone now.

There are seven to 10 places in the world you've got to tip if you're going to tip the world: China, Indonesia, India, Brazil, US. Those five big countries completely dominate their respective continents. Also German-speaking Europe and Japan are highly influential. If you can tip those places, you can tip the world.

How do you get people to realize they can be a changemaker?

When a social entrepreneur sees that a pattern should be and could be changed, how do they get the system changed? Almost always they have to get local people in thousands of communities to say, "Oh, this is a good idea. This will make a difference for my community. I can do this."

When that happens, those people have become local changemakers. And they recruit people.

This is an area in which we're very different from business. We're not trying to capture a market. That's not the game here.

No social entrepreneur is going to run tens of thousands of schools. It's not going to happen. But if you get thousands of people and thousands of communities to take your idea and run with it, you can change tens of thousands of schools. You can do it all over the world.

Here's an analogy: Even though I was involved in the early civil rights movement, it never occurred to me, not for one millisecond, that there was anything wrong in the way our society treated women. I'm not proud of that fact. But it took the women's movement that came around and said, "This is crazy, this is unfair." And I read articles about it and began to say, "Yes!"

That's where we are with "everyone a changemaker." Many people get this, they just don't have words to describe it.

Education seems to be one of the areas to which changemaking is needed.

Seven hundred of the 3,000 Ashoka Fellows are focused on children and young people. There's a reason for that.

The old paradigm for success in growing up was to master information and rules. The new paradigm is you've got to be a changemaker and have mastered the skills of being a changemaker before you're 21.

What we have to do in the next five years is get 5 percent of the most influential schools, i.e., those that like setting the pace and are open: public schools, religious schools, charter schools, independent schools [to teach changemaking skills].

We've done evaluations of the Ashoka fellows for nine years now and at the end of five years over half have changed national policy, and three-quarters have changed the pattern of their field at the national level.

These people are really good at causing change in [education].

Can you have changemakers within governments?

Yes, of course. Yes, yes, yes, absolutely. They're called "intrapreneurs." They're very important in any institution that's on it's way to becoming an "everyone is a changemaker" institution. That's what you want.

Everyone has to have a highly developed skill that's based on empathy. This is really complicated. This is like learning a language. There's nothing easy about this. But children will work to do it because this is the key to their success as a part of society.

But we're not there. We're making it hard for kids to do this.

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